A Pants-Shitting Big Goal: Training for an Ultramarathon
New Year’s Eve has come and gone, and though many of you will have broken your big resolution by now, January is still a great time for reflecting, for getting your ducks in a row, and for thinking about big goals. I know that’s what I’m doing.
I didn’t make one overarching New Year’s Resolution this year. Instead, I opted for a series of specific goals for different areas of my life. One of the biggest of these goals was set long before December 31, so long ago that, even as I’m in the midst of working towards it, I sometimes forget it’s happening. It’s a physical goal, technically speaking, though it will probably require more mental stamina than anything.
Lace up those shoes, we’re running an ultramarathon.
For those of you wondering what the hell an ultramarathon is, it’s technically any race longer than a marathon, which is 26.2 miles. Ultras can be 50, 100, even 200 miles of running. Woof.
Fret not people, I’m starting off “small”, with a 50-mile run in early April.
For those of you wondering why the hell I’m doing it, I’ll get into that and much more in this post. We’re talking the Where, What and WHY of this ultramarathon, plus all the deets of how this normal, average, lazy-ish runner is training for an ultramarathon.
What, When, Where
I’ll be running the Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run, whose slogan is “Just a Run in the Park”. This ultramarathon takes place each spring in Umstead Park, located in Raleigh, North Carolina. As the name suggests, there is a 100-mile race, but we will be tackling the easier 50-mile jaunt. I’ll be running with my running buddy, Meagaan, who you’ve met in other running posts if you’ve been following along for a while. Race day is April 1, 2023, giving us 2.5 months left to train. And boy, oh boy will we need it.
For more information about the Umstead 100 Endurance Run, click here.
Volunteering at the Umstead 100
Why I’m Running an Ultramarathon
You may remember last year’s post about volunteering at the Umstead 100. My bestie, Rachel, married into the race (her father-in-law is one of the founders) and so, by default, I did too. She invited me to come cheer on the runners and serve up refreshments, and since I’d never seen an ultramarathon in action, I had to go.
We had a BLAST. The atmosphere was so warm and friendly, the excitement so intoxicating, that I knew I wanted to be a part of it again. I watched them, runner after runner, stopping for fruit or soup or M&Ms or water, jogging, walking, or trudging past. Some had smiles, some bore red-faced exhaustion. Some went and went and seemed not to be breaking a sweat, while others placed hands on knees, bent over parallel to the ground, feeling every bit as ill as they looked. All of them had different bodies—short, tall, thin, thick, muscular, heavy, petite. They were of different generations—fathers and sons, 18-year-olds and 70-year-olds, gray hair and expansive, bubbling youth, all sharing the same course.
I watched them in deep fascination. All these humans, their varied, unique human bodies, taking on this big, terrifying challenge—to run 100 miles. More miles than I’ve ever dreamed of running. And the more I thought about it, and the more I watched them, the more I became convinced: I have a human body, too. Could I not rise to this challenge? Put my unique, flawed, powerful body to the test?
I vowed to do it. I made it a goal. I would run an ultramarathon—THIS ultramarathon, The Umstead 100. I considered the possibility, every day for weeks. “I will run an ultramarathon,” I thought to myself in quiet, pleased determination. I announced it in a blog post. I got pumped up on the idea of this.
And then, eventually, I got back to real life. Normal life.
I worked, I wrote, I did house projects. I spent a summer laying on the beach. I visited friends, I spent time with family, I dated. I made travel plans. I didn’t run much. And the ultramarathon that had been my newest wildest dream, ceased to enter my mind for weeks, maybe months.
But when the time came, I remembered.
The day before flying to London to then fly to France to then walk into and across the whole of Spain, the day before my big Camino adventure began—what would end up being the defining event of my year—I logged in at exactly 12 noon to register for the Umstead 100. It took more than three attempts and a lot of nervous refreshing for this race that sells out in minutes, but by 12:10, I was in. It was official; I would run an ultramarathon.
Training for an Ultramarathon
Ahhhh… training. Everyone’s favorite part. At this point, I’m honestly being pretty easy about it. Between my hectic, all-over-the-place work schedule, hosting international guests, and taking random trips to Maine and the UK, I haven’t had the ability to create a true “routine”. Sleep is precious to me, and New England is cold in the winter, so you won’t find me up before dawn cranking out miles. I also, up to this point, have not cancelled plans or adjusted my life much for my training. I’m running about 4x per week, trying to make one of those a long run. The longest I’ve run so far is 17 miles, so I should be hitting the 20-mile mark at some point in the next few days. I keep my pace outside, on those long runs, pretty slow. The goal is just the miles, not the speed. On those freezing winter days when I have to stay inside, I do a shorter run on the treadmill, where I do intervals to work on my speed. It has come to my attention that the Umstead course is rather hilly, so I will need to integrate some hills into my training, too. This part makes me want to cry and vomit, but really, it will all be fine in the end.
I have a running buddy to train with, and that makes all the difference in the world.
Having a running buddy makes all the difference in the world.
Friends in fast places
I convinced my running buddy, Meagaan, that she, too, needed to run an ultramarathon. So here we both are, training for an ultramarathon. This is making the whole thing more bearable. Truth be told, I don’t think I could do it without her. Since we started running together six years ago, I have only run one half marathon and one 5k by myself. In 2019 we trained for and completed our first marathon together, running side-by-side for almost the entire four hours and 22 minutes. Twenty-six miles was a long way, but the miles passed pleasantly. We left our ear buds dangling from our necks, opting for chit chat over music, and Meagaan kept pace for us. “We’re going kind of fast,” she warned early on in the race. I didn’t agree, but slowed anyway, and after 10 miles of it, I was glad I listened. The pace was sustainable, she was right. I cannot even imagine getting through 50 miles without her.
But the benefit of having a running buddy goes way beyond race day. Training for an ultramarathon, or any long race, is arguably harder than the race itself. Keeping yourself up and moving for hours is one thing, but keeping that motivation going for months? That is a task. Running is at least 50% mental, and training for a race of this length can be an emotional rollercoaster. My running buddy keeps me on track. We text every couple days to talk about what we’ve been running, when our next long run will be, and how many miles we’ll be putting in. As goal oriented as I am, I’m also a bit lazy. I’ll let myself off the hook as easily as saying “I worked late, I’ll do it tomorrow.” But knowing that Meagaan has already done her long run for the week lights the fire under me. It feels like it would be a personal affront to our friendship if I didn’t hold up my end of the bargain. (Especially since I’m the one who talked her into this crazy 50-mile idea!) So I go out and I run, too.
We discuss injuries and injury prevention; The places on our aging bodies that are feeling the miles most, the mitigating stretches and strengthening exercises. We share our worries about our knees, and our worries about how it will feel to run for 12 hours straight, and our worries about bathroom breaks, and sleep the night before, and hydration packs. All these little worries compile and become a heavy burden to carry. But we share the weight, and it’s half as heavy, twice as light.
Despite living in different states, we sometimes get together for team training runs. You have no idea how much better 17 miles on a cold December day feels when you’re in good company.
Anyway, I’ll stop gushing about my running buddy now, but if any of you find yourself saying a little prayer for me on this 50-mile adventure, please say one for Meagaan, too! And for those of you runners who want to run more, or who want to enjoy it more, finding a running buddy is the best piece of advice I can give.
Some other runs we've done...
Providence Half Marathon, Providence, RI
Sprouts Mesa-Phoenix Marathon, Phoenix, AZ
Zion National Park Half Marathon, Springvale UT
Struggles & Worries
I’m about to turn 37, and at this point in the game, injury prevention is my religion. I am TERRIFIED of hurting myself—during training or on race day. Notoriously bad at stretching, I have made it a point to take time on the mat after every single run and workout.
Years ago, when training for my first marathon, I sought out a physical therapist to get help with pain in my left knee. It turned out—wondrous connected thing, the human body is—that my knee wasn’t the problem at all. My left hip, apparently, was weak, causing my knee to overcompensate and tire more quickly. What a revelation. I’ve been integrating the same hip strengthening exercises that patched me up back in 2019 into my post-workout stretch routine, and hopefully that will keep the pain and strain at bay. There is a lot to think about in training for an ultramarathon.
Otherwise I’ve just been taking a very gentle approach. When I feel something, I pay attention. To tightness, stiffness, strain, pulling, cramping. If I’m in pain, I slow down, and if it persists, I stop. Completing this Ultramarathon is the only thing I have to prove to myself, not that I can power through pain on a training run.
Other things on my list of worries are simple, everyday things. Will I be able to sleep the night before? Will I feel nauseous, like some of the runners I saw last year? How will I carry water, and will whatever option I choose feel cumbersome and annoying? Will I have to run in the dark, through the woods? And will it be scary? Will the hills on this course actually kill me? Will I be able to do it? Will my knee hold up? Will my will hold up? Will I be able to start running again after I stop for a break? Will I love it or hate it? Perhaps something in between those two?
Most of these worries have to be kept on the back burner. I won’t know until race day how I feel about running 50 miles, or how scary running in the dark in the woods is, or how painful the hills will be, so there’s no real point in dwelling. All I can do is keep putting in the miles, stretching and strengthening, and trusting in the process. Control what I can and try to enjoy the ride.
“Never Ending Footsteps”
On “Real” Runners
I never thought I would be a person who signs up to run 50 miles at a time. I tried track in high school and quit after one practice. I wasn’t as fast as the other track kids (which was normal, since it was literally my first day) and I felt nauseated and embarrassed at the end of the run. Instead of sticking with it, seeing gradual improvement and learning life lessons about teamwork and perseverance, I quit to save my ego and believed that, though I loved running and was naturally good at it, I wasn’t good enough.
Despite continuing to run in my free time, for enjoyment, fitness, and the most zen mental clarity I could find, I carried the belief that I wasn’t a “real” runner. I carried it for years. I wasn’t brave enough to sign up for even a 5k until my late twenties. When finally I did, it went well. And then I signed up for another, and then a half, and eventually a full marathon. Each race, and each long training run, and with every step of the way, it became increasingly clear: My body is made for this. I have always been a runner.
Now, being immersed in the life of a runner and part of the running community, my youthful, perfectionist doubts seem silly. Now I know that I don’t have to be the fastest person on the course to be a real runner. I don’t need to have a certain body type to be a real runner. I don’t have to do an ultra or a marathon to be a real runner. I don’t even have to race at all. All I need is the desire, and the zen, and one step, and then another.
I’ll be whispering this to myself when times get tough out there on the 50-mile course. Or maybe I won’t need to. Maybe I’ll be so caught up in the wonder of it all—the forest, the excitement of the volunteers, the “run in the park” with my best buddy—that I won’t even notice how long it’s been or how far we have to go.
Here’s hoping for the best. Here’s to trusting in the process. Here’s to big goals and good friends.
Please wish us luck.
Setting goals and pushing boundaries (since, like, 2016.)
Have you run an ultramarathon before? Tell us how you got through it! Marathon runners in our midst? 5k aficionados? Runners of all ages, abilities, and distance prefs—send us your best tips! If you want to see how our run goes, give me a follow on Instagram, or check back here in April for the recap. Whatever your big, scary goal is this year, this week, or today, I hope you will take the first step. (And then the next.)
Thanks for stopping by <3
Hey you. Yes, you! Thanks for stopping by. I’m Toni and I run the show here at A Wheel in the Sky. (See what I did there?)
Here we talk all things travel, flight attendant life, and personal hurdles. If you enjoyed this post about training for an ultramarathon, then consider checking out some of my other running content. More into incline than speed? I’ve got lots of hiking posts as well. If you want some goal setting and/or personal development inspirational posts, you’re in the right place. And, of course, flight attendant stories galore. I’ll link some posts to get you started. Relax, stay a while!
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Thanks again for coming.
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Woot woot! Can’t wait to cheer you and Meagaan on from the sidelines!!!
Thanks for being the best-all-round super friend ❤️ can’t wait to experience this wild crazy event with you+